I am a banking correspondent, or bank saathi in Thal village, Pithoragarh district, Uttarakhand. Under the SEWA-Sarthak programme, I provide banking services in remote and hilly areas of Uttarakhand, where these services are quite inaccessible. The programme is run by SEWA Bharat, in partnership with the State Bank of India, to employ and train banking agents. Since 2014, I have been running a Customer Service Point (CSP) from my family’s general store, where I serve people from my village, as well as several other villages in a 7 to 8 km radius. Apart from the work of a bank saathi and looking after the store, I have a big family and I look after them as well.
The services I provide range from withdrawals and deposits of money, to filling forms to open new savings accounts. While there is a bank not too far from here, people from the community find the processes slow and complicated and the bank officials unhelpful, and so they come to me. My husband is also involved in similar work—he helps people access government schemes such as old-age or widow pension. Together, we help the community with all their banking needs.
I usually facilitate about 300-350 transactions in a month, for which I earn a commission.
When the nationwide lockdown was announced, people stopped coming to the market where our store and my CSP is. Since this is a hilly region, people travel from one village to another in shared taxis or jeeps. When these shared jeeps stopped plying, and it was not possible for people to walk all the way, fewer customers would show up. Those from my own village were still visiting during the lockdown, and slowly, people from outside started coming in too. We would open our store at 7 AM during the lockdown, while the banks opened at 10 AM. People preferred to come early to the market, finish their work, and return quickly. They also wanted to avoid the queues at the bank.
Even though we haven’t had any cases of COVID-19 in our village, the community has suffered due to the lockdown. There is a high degree of outmigration in this area, with many young people working in factories in Delhi or Mumbai. They have all returned now, and have no source of income and limited opportunities in the hills. I have been assisting them as well, with balance enquiries on their savings accounts and withdrawals. Those who have not been able to return sent remittances for their families in the village, which I have been helping them access. For many, this has been the only source of income during the lockdown, allowing them to buy essentials like food and medicines.
During the lockdown I also visited a few villages. Agar kisi ko zarurat hai, koi aa nahi paata, uss samay gaadiyon ki bhi samasya ho rahi thi, gaadi nahi chal rahi thi. To humne SEWA-Sarthak ka pass lagwaya tha, fir apni gaadi leke gaye. (For people who needed my services but were unable to come, since jeeps were also not running, I got a pass issued under the SEWA-Sarthak name and visited them in our family car.) Some people would come to the market on foot, but have trouble going back with their purchases, so we dropped them home in our car.
The government has provided cash relief to people under various schemes during the lockdown, and as a bank saathi, I have been able to help them access it.
7.30 AM: Sarala* comes to me with her passbook, asking me to check the balance in her Jan Dhan account. As part of the relief measures for COVID-19, the Prime Minister had announced cash assistance of INR 500 for three months to every Jan Dhan account holder, and she wants to check if hers has been deposited yet. I can’t check her balance because her KYC 1 is not complete.
In 2014, several people in the community had opened accounts after the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana was launched. However, they did not carry out any transactions through those accounts, because of which they became inactive. Back then, I had asked some people to deposit a small amount in their accounts—INR 100 or 200—and those are still active. Sarala is one of them.
I tell Sarala that she can get her KYC done by linking an identification document, such as her Aadhar card, with her account, and also tell her to keep making small withdrawals and deposits from her account, so it does not become inactive. She agrees and submits her documents to me.
8.30 AM: A farmer visits me to check if the cash relief of INR 2,000 promised by the government to all farmers under the PM-KISAN Yojana has reached his account. With markets closed, farmers are facing the economic effects of the lockdown, and so, many of them withdraw the cash relief as soon as it is deposited.
We find that the money has not been credited to his account yet, even though he had received a text message informing him that it had been deposited.
Because the number of people checking their account balance has increased during the lockdown, the banks have stopped allowing balance enquiries. This is true even for those who have completed their KYC. Additionally, the software system that I use to access banking services has become very slow, and there are times when it doesn’t function at all. If somebody is in a hurry, which more people are during the lockdown, they just leave without getting their work done.
Since I was unable to check the farmer’s account balance, I give him the idea of withdrawing INR 10 to find out the balance. He agrees, and after we do that, we find that the money has not been credited to his account yet, even though he had received a text message informing him that it had been deposited.
10.00 AM: A group of daily-wage workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) come to me for help. It was recently announced that all pending wages under the MGNREGA will be cleared, and they want to know how to access this money.
To find out which accounts are active, I deposit INR 10 in 20-25 daily-wage workers’ accounts out of my own pocket.
I contact the Samaj Kalyan Vibhag (or Social Welfare Department) in the Pithoragarh district headquarters to find out more about this. The officials there ask me whether the workers’ bank accounts are still active, because wages will only come to the active accounts. Due to inactivity for the past few months, some accounts have become inactive. To find out which accounts are active, I deposit INR 10 in 20-25 daily-wage workers’ accounts out of my own pocket. I send the list of active accounts to the Samaj Kalyan Vibhag, so that money can be transferred to them, and share the list of inactive accounts with the pradhan, who can help them access the money.
12.30 PM: I am contacted by a fauji (a member of the military) in the village. He is going to retire in a few months, and needs to urgently open a joint bank account with his spouse, so that he can submit all the documents to start receiving his pension in time. Although banks are not opening new accounts during the lockdown and are focusing only on transactions, I try to help him out. I fill the form required to open a new account and take all his documents to the bank, requesting them to open the account. The bank official attests all the documents as required, and the fauji will now be able to apply for his pension on time.
2.00 PM: A few of my regular customers are older people who receive old-age pension or widow pension from the government. Their age makes it especially difficult for them to visit me during the lockdown, however, the pension amount is even more important for them now. Those who can, send their children on their behalf. Since I have a travel pass, I decide to visit them in our family car.
Typically, these visits entail going to the pensioners’ homes and giving them their pension amount in cash. Today, there is a complication—I am unable to access a woman’s bank account on my system, and consequently unable to withdraw the money for her. As a solution, I fill a transfer form for her, so that her pension amount can be deposited in her son’s account instead, from where she will be able to access it. I get her thumbprint on the form, and sign next to it, to verify that the beneficiary is alive and that this is indeed her account. I will now submit the form in the bank for her.
Since the lockdown is slowly being lifted, our shop opens from 7 AM to 7 PM, instead of 7 AM to 1 PM. But people are still scared to travel to a different village, and their habits have changed as well. They still prefer to come to us early and get home by 10 AM.
I am grateful that I am able to serve the people of my community with services that are difficult for them to access otherwise.
*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.
As told to IDR.
- KYC, or ‘Know Your Customer’ is a process used by banks to verify the identity of an account holder, so as to curb financial fraud.
- Learn more about the employment opportunities for women in India’s growing financial sector, as well as the barriers they face in accessing them.
- Read SEWA Bharat’s Gendered Precarity in The Lockdown report, that highlights the impact of the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown on women workers.
- To connect with or learn more about SEWA Bharat and their work, write to email@example.com, or check out their social media channels.